************ Sermon on Genesis 17:9-27 ************

By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman

This sermon was preached on August 5, 2012

Genesis 17:9-27
"Covenant Need, Covenant Name, and Covenant Sign"

I Our Need for the Covenant of Grace
A What part of the Christian message do people have the hardest time accepting? We can identify many potential areas of disagreement. Like Paul, we can mention the foolishness of the cross and the grave (1 Cor 1:23). People also scoff at the incarnation, the eternal Son of God taking to Himself a true human nature (Jn 1:14). Many people stumble over our claim that Jesus is the only Way to the Father and salvation (Jn 14:6). There are those who deny the miracles of Christ. Evolutionists, of course, reject our teaching that the heavens and earth and everything in them have been made by God. As I said, many potential areas of disagreement.

B However, there is one other part of the Christian message that more people stumble over than any other. What am I talking about? I can describe the teaching in various ways:
-no one is automatically headed for heaven
-everyone is automatically headed for hell
-on my own I cannot find God
-I am not basically good
-by nature, I am a liar
-even tiny, little babies are sinners
Do you hear what I am talking about? I am talking about Total Depravity. I am talking about Original Sin. I am talking about Total Inability.

C No one wants to believe this about themselves. Many Christians don't believe this about themselves. And, there are even lots of Reformed Christians who do not accept this about themselves. The attitude of most people today is: if I live a decent and good life, then of course God will accept me; in fact, He has to accept me.

This was Cain's problem. He thought God should have accepted his sacrifice despite the attitude of his heart. If pressed, Cain probably would have said, "It is God's job to accept sacrifices; He has no business picking and choosing; He should be happy I am doing this for Him."

This was also the problem of those who built the Tower of Babel. They thought they could build a tower that reached to the very presence of God Himself. And, of course, once they burst in on God, He would be delighted to accept them.

D In our study of Genesis so far, I hope all of you have come to a couple of realizations. First, because of sin, you need to realize there is nothing automatic about our relationship with God. You need to recognize there is no "of course" to why God loves you.

Second, you need to realize, congregation, that El-Shaddai is a God of grace. He needs to be or we would all be lost and none of us could be saved. Out of grace He offers us Himself. Out of grace He offers unworthy people a covenant relationship with the living God. Consider this: What is the very first thing that happened once man fell into sin? Man went into hiding – from God – and God came looking. Not the other way around. Man hid from God's presence and God had to search him out. God did that with Adam and Eve. He did that with Abraham too.

Third, you need to realize that God's covenant of grace changes us. You cannot have a relationship with El-Shaddai, with God Almighty, with the Great King, without it changing your life.
Ruth & I are headed to Ontario, Canada this week. We are visiting family and attending the wedding of TJ & Laura.
Now, can you imagine marriage not changing TJ at all? Can you imagine TJ saying, "Yeah, I'm getting married, but I won't let it affect my life. I will do what I want with my money and my time. I will talk to my wife when I need to. But she is not going to make any difference in my life." Can you imagine TJ talking like this?
People think they can behave this way with God. People today want a "Sunday only" kind of religion. They want a religion that takes up an hour of the week and leaves the rest of the week alone. They want God to be their God without any changes on their part. They don't want a relationship with God that changes their lives. But that is the only kind of relationship God offers. God will be your God and come into your life and change it completely – or He will not be your God at all.

I've been reading and seeing articles in which our public schools are trying to teach children character – notice, schools are being asked to do something that should be done by the home. We all agree that we shouldn't murder or bully each other and that our schools should be free of guns and knives. We further agree on strong messages about the danger of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. But what about adultery, or pre-marital sex, or cohabitation, or homosexual behavior? Most people are in favor of character-based education so long as it doesn't interfere with their lives. But that is not what God wants. God wants His covenant partners to surrender everything to His control.

What about you? Does your faith govern every area of your life, even the most personal and intimate? Does your covenant relationship with God govern your sexuality? Does it govern your truthfulness at work and at home? Does it control the things with which you fill your mind or your Facebook page? Does it affect the ambitions and desires of your heart? Does it impact what you live for and how you use alcohol and drugs? Does it make every thought captive to Christ (cf 2 Cor 10:5)?

E Abraham had to learn all these lessons through his failures. During the thirteen long years between the end of Genesis 16 and the beginning of Genesis 17, Abraham had plenty of time to think about his failures, his sins, and his unfaithfulness to God. So, he should have been surprised, even shocked, when God again appeared to him. In spite of everything, El-Shaddai appeared once again to the man who had left him down, and confirmed his covenant with him. We see that God's covenant promises are not destroyed by man's failure. We see that God is a God of grace.

II The Covenant Name
A In a covenant relationship, the weaker party surrenders control to the stronger party. So, for instance, the kings of the Jordan River Valley surrendered control to Kedorlaomer king of Elam. Likewise, Abraham surrendered control to God. As a sign of such surrender, Abraham went to an unknown land, a land God would show him. As a further sign of such surrender, Abraham and Sarah were both given new names (Gen 17:5,15). In changing their names, God changed the most personal thing about them.

What would happen if you went to work on Monday morning and said, "Don't call me Robert or Mike or Adrian anymore. God told me that my name is Fred"? Imagine the reaction you would get! Most people would assume you were part of a weird cult. But obedience to El-Shaddai is all-consuming. From then on, every time their names were spoken, Abraham and Sarah would be reminded that they were not their own, but belonged to God.

B Abraham means "father of many." This must have sounded like a joke at first. After all, Abraham was an old man with no children, with an old wife who was barren. And, God announced the baby's name would be "Isaac" meaning "he laughs" (Gen 17:19). What a laugh. What a joke. What a hoot. Even God was part of the joke.

According to Scripture, Abraham laughed about this (Gen 17:17). We can expect Abraham's servants and neighbors to react the same way. They must have snickered to each other as they said, "Hey, there goes the father of many."

"Your name will be Abraham" (Gen 17:5). In choosing this name God is emphasizing His promises. Remember, God promised many descendants. God promised nations. God promised kings.

C Sarah, too, was given a new name. However, it was only a change in spelling and not a change in meaning. Think of the name "Katherine" with a "K" or "Catherine" with a "C" – same name, same pronunciation, same meaning.

The names "Sarah" and "Sarai" both mean princess. Telling us what? Telling us that Abraham may be the father of many nations and kings, but it is Princess Sarah who will give birth to those nations and kings. Who is more fit than a princess for this task?

III The Covenant Sign
A We are also told about circumcision, "the sign of the covenant" that God established with Abraham (Gen 17:11).

This is now the fourth time we see the Hebrew word for "sign" used in Genesis. Two times, signs are used to identify. For instance, the sun and moon identify day and night and serve as "signs to mark seasons and days and years" (Gen 1:14). And, Cain was given a sign, a mark, to identify him as under God's protection (Gen 4:15). The third time we see the word, signs are used to remember, to call to mind. So, the rainbow reminds God of His promise to Noah not to destroy the world by a flood again (Gen 9:8-17).

Likewise, circumcision is a sign that identifies and it is a sign that reminds. It identifies the people of God and reminds them of their relationship with God.

B Circumcision symbolizes the covenant relationship. But circumcision itself is not the covenant relationship – it is merely a symbol of the covenant relationship.
When couples get married, they exchange rings as a sign or symbol of their union.
Can you imagine a couple exchanging rings and not living together as husband and wife? Can you imagine a couple settling for the sign rather than for the real thing?
Yet, that is what happened with many in Israel. They pointed to their circumcision instead of to a living relationship with God.

This kind of thinking reached its extreme with the Israelites at the time of Amos and Hosea. These Israelites thought they were safe from God's wrath on the Day of the Lord simply because they were circumcised even though their daily lives made a mockery of God and His commands. Amos identifies their misdeeds: they trample on the poor, they oppress the righteous, they take bribes, they turn justice into bitterness (Amos 5). At the time of Jesus it was the Pharisees who thought the same way; they pointed to circumcision as proof that they were sons of Abraham.

In Israel, at the time of Amos and Jesus, if you were circumcised you were assumed to be in the covenant; if you were circumcised you were reckoned to be one of God's people who could look forward to everlasting life with God in the coming Kingdom. The sad story of Ishmael teaches us this is not true. And, John the Baptist teaches us the same thing when he says God is able to raise up children for Abraham from the very stones of the desert (Lk 3:8). In other words, circumcision – by itself – does not mean a thing and does not guarantee that one is a child of Abraham and therefore a child of God.

C Circumcision is the sign of the covenant. But in exactly what way does the cutting away of the foreskin symbolize the covenant? God, if you remember, called Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father's household. Later, Abraham had to part ways from his nephew Lot. Abraham, in other words, had to cut all ties with his past. Still later, he had to cut aside all attempts to father a child on his own; Abraham learned that the child of the promise would come not by human effort or determination but only by God's grace. The cutting away of the foreskin reminded Abraham and Israel of all this cutting away that needed to take place in order to be and to live as one of God's covenant children.

Here we come to the heart of circumcision. At heart, circumcision symbolizes that those in a covenant relationship with God are called to be separate, apart, different, holy; they are to cut off worldly passions and desires. This truth is taught throughout Scripture:
(2Cor 6:17) Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.

(Rom 12:2) Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

(1Pt 2:11) Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.
As God's people, we are called to be separate, to be different, to cut off the world with its passions and desires.

D When we study Scripture we come across the phrase "circumcise your hearts." This is the circumcision that most pleases God – a circumcision of the heart.
(Deut 10:16) Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.

(Deut 30:6) And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

(Jer 4:4) Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done–burn with no one to quench it.
God wants lives that are devoted to Him rather than to sin and the flesh. God wants people with a new heart rather than with a heart of sin. The circumcision that pleases God points to an inner working of the Holy Spirit.

E Circumcision is the sign of the covenant relationship with God. What happens in circumcision? Not only the cutting off of flesh but also the shedding of blood.

Do you hear the message? A relationship with God, a covenant relationship with God, requires the shedding of blood. As such, the blood of circumcision points us forward to the blood of Christ upon the cross. He is our God and we are His people only because of the blood of Christ.

F One should never look at the rite of circumcision in Genesis 17 without also looking at what the Apostle Paul says about circumcision in his letter to the Colossians. Listen to what Paul was inspired to write:
(Col 2:11-12) In [Christ] you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, (12) having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
Paul links circumcision to baptism. And he links both to Christ.

What is true for circumcision is also true for baptism. Like circumcision, baptism points us to Christ and His blood. Like circumcision, baptism points to an inner working of the Holy Spirit. Like circumcision, baptism reminds us of how we have been set apart and called out of the world. Like circumcision, baptism is administered to children too. And, like circumcision, baptism does not save us. You – and your children – are not safe just because you are baptized. Think of Ishmael. He was circumcised. But, it was never a circumcision of the heart. It was never a spiritual reality in his life.

Let me end with the phrase "everlasting covenant." El-Shaddai, the King of the universe, makes an "everlasting covenant" (Gen 17:7) with Abraham and his descendants after him.

In other words, those who truly are in the covenant are guaranteed a relationship with God that never ends. It turns out what we are talking about in the covenant is eternal life.

So let me ask if you part of this covenant. If you know Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior, you are. And, if you don't know Christ as Lord and Savior, you are like Ishmael – outside of the covenant and its promises of a never-ending relationship with El-Shaddai.

Are you or are you not part of the covenant? Do you or do you not have a living relationship with God in Christ? Come to Jesus, for He is the way – the only way – to an everlasting relationship with El-Shaddai.
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